The arts and ageing: an invitation to connection, inspiration and reflection.

The following blog is the text of an address given on the 28th March 2023 at the Luminate ‘Arts and Ageing’ Gathering at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.


When I was asked to say a few words at the start of this event I did I have to confess wonder what I could say that I haven’t said already to a good number of you over the years – and although I’m a great believer in re-cycling I thought I should at least say something new lest I fall foul to the accusation that with age comes the repetitiveness of remembrance. That’s not to say that what I have said in the past isn’t worth repeating – he says defensively – indeed at the start of this contribution I want to underline a challenge I have often given – especially on the first full day of a new First Minister.

I want to ground all that I say in a few minutes in the earth that the human right to creativity, the right to self and artistic expression, is a fundamental human right. And we need to see that right visibly and vocally articulated in the new Scottish Human Rights Act when it eventually appears. This is not the stuff of occasional opt in, less important than other interventions, do when you can or when resources allow – all that we do today and reflect upon is as fundamental and as intrinsic and as critical as the adequate resourcing of the rest of our civic and individual belonging.

But I have decided to hang some reflections this morning on the words of invitation to join this event – because for me – amongst other things the arts and ageing are about exactly what we hope to get from the event today – namely connection and inspiration and reflection.

Connection is intriguing especially for us solitaries in the room. Yes, I recognise in the words of the poet that no one is an island and that we are all part of the main – but I’m sure I’m not the only one who you know sometimes just wants to be alone! I want to find that corner in the room that encloses me in the security of encounter on my own terms.

I was chatting to someone contemplating going into a care home recently and the one thing that was putting him off – was the thought he would have to be with people 24/7 – that there would be loads of groups and forced camaraderie. That there would be no place for privacy to hide to take off the mask of pretence we all show the world and simply just to be! Now of course that’s a stereotypical fear – and I’m with him – but the truth is much more complex and subtle.

The creative arts whether they are used in care facility or community setting; in one’s own home or in your local – do indeed have the potential to connect, to meet loneliness and break down isolation but they also have the capacity to offer privacy, to help you to discover your individuality and become stronger in your sense of self and identity – in truth the arts are for both islanders and mainlanders.

When I think of connection the image that comes to mind is Avril Paton’s Windows in the West – you probably know it – as someone brought up for many years in a Glasgow tenement it expresses for me what that uncoordinated accidental connection is and portrays the mess of living in community in all its glory.

I could spend a morning exploring the story behind each window, the children fighting, the lovers yearning, the couple settled into slippered age, the partners re-designing avoidance, and so on  – it’s a painting that for me represents a deeper truth about connection, living in community and in proximity with others;  the truth is that people who come together under the canopy created by the creative arts are able to be empowered to be themselves, to live their lives anew and afresh, to choose to be in connection or apart. But always to be changed. The creative arts have both the ability to affirm individual identity and creative community, collective cohesion and passion.

Connection cannot be forced – you just create the moments for happenstance  – the creative arts are the hospitality makers of place and space that enable connection and which provide the nourishment to keep it going when the being one with another becomes tough and challenging.

So today as we connect to one another – can we also think about how we use our work to allow others to connect. Are we creating enough emptiness for connection to happen or are we predictable in our design of the moment; have we created enough silence for language to be heard or have we suffocated the echoes of personal story by intrusive commentary? Do we create the space and place for being in community and the even harder moments of nurturing the aloneness which is essential for connection?

Inspiration is the second expectation and hope for today. For those of us in this room the connotation of age with inspiration is self-evident and natural. We know that the art of imagining and the power of the imagination to restore and renew does not have a use by date. We have witnessed folks in very late age discovering for the first time or anew the power which the creative arts can bring to their sense of self, their image of the world, they have refreshed the person, people and community they want to be.

We have seen the moments of pure joy when someone discovers inside themselves the words they have always wanted to articulate; when someone paints the image that has struggled to take form and substance; when in touch and movement a new expressiveness is born, and a new story is told.

We know that just as it’s important to ask older people how they want to live in their future, so we need to make sure we are nurturing the imaginative dimension of human living and loving well into older age.

The creative arts at their best are the midwives of an imaginative birthing that brings new possibilities, unimagined dreams and unheard-of possibility to older age.

Even in the latter days of breath there is still a desire to be someone to someone; to do something new; there is still a yearning to find, to discover, to experience, to be changed and to explore.

The power of imagining the places beyond the known and the realities beyond the possible do not decline as we age. They just take a different form and more than anything they need the creative arts to foster and nurture their birthing.

But as Anne Gallagher in her opening address has challenged us are we in danger of making our art fit into a clinical science; to perversely limit the boundaries of creativity by being too focussed on outcome and discernible benefit; by using the metrics of identifiable and quantifiable science instead of the dynamic of experience and moment, intuition and instinct, encounter, and expression?

I have always and continue to believe that there is a massive primary nontherapeutic value in the arts – they are valuable in their own right not as something which improves one or changes you – and I know that there is a fine balance there – but when I listened to Mozart in my twenties, Springsteen in my thirties, Natalie Merchant in my forties, Taylor Swift in my fifties – my primary motivation was enjoyment and the experience – is there a danger I wonder especially in resource constricted times that we develop too reductionist an approach to the creative arts in terms of ageing?

And I wonder if maybe there is one specific area where more than any there is a risk that we turn our creative arts and their contribution into therapeutic value and outcome – and indeed that we are only funded and resourced where we can show benefit and improvement in a neurological and clinical sense – and that is in terms of dementia?

A diagnosis of dementia as most of us in the room will know is not a full stop in the grammar of creativity but a new paragraph – but we must be wary of the dangers of presumptive response – I think we must give space to be shocked and surprised – to be pulled away from predictable expectation and onto a journey with the person into new territories of the mind and landscapes of the heart. Life with dementia is not about maintenance it is about living to the full.

I feel an increasing sense that especially in the way in which we support people with advanced dementia that we spend too much of our time in the country of yesteryear – that too much focus is placed on memory and moments and experiences and tools of recollection and remembrance. There is clear neurological benefit in that – I am in no way denying that – but there is also clear benefit neurologically in enabling people to discover the new as well as re-discover the old, to create anew as well as to re-member, to begin afresh rather than re-visit – there is a warmth and comfort in the familiar but there is also a liveliness, an energy, a passion and joy in the new sound, the new place and in the new creation.

The last of the three themes is closely related to what I have just said, and that is reflection.

Reflection in older age is palpably different from the reflective snatches of living we have when younger – and so it should be – because to deny the reality of a life well lived is absurd. The pace slows and changes – rhythm finds a new beat and novel movement – but what glorious richness we have in older age!!! A lifetime of the raw clay of encounter and experience to be moulded into the creation of the present moment pregnant with time lived and lives loved.

We need to give people the opportunity to find their own expressiveness and to discover the language that may have lain dormant within them or indeed to have been deliberately suppressed because of negative stereotypical attitudes to the arts or the contribution and worth of the arts in society.

I think at times we are fearful; of leaving people who are older to reflect lest the pain of memory grip too hard – but there is nothing truly to be feared from the quietude of age; there is no coldness in the absence of activism; for so many it is in the space between the sounds that we learn to understand a new language, form a new way of looking at the world, and to feel restored and renewed in our own selves.


So active creativity has a unique place in the ageing of our society, in active, passive, accepting, challenging age. But we are not talking about waiting for the tick tock of finality as if we are passive recipients of the inevitable. No way.

I believe for all ages the creative arts are a call to purposefulness and decision. One of my favourite poets is the American Mary Oliver who in 2020 wrote in ‘The Summer Day.”  It is a rich poem which describes life and existence from the perspective of a grasshopper. It finishes with these words:

‘I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’

You will quite possibly have seen the last two sentences quoted in many places. But for me –  for later age the power of the poem is in the question

‘Tell me, what else should I have done?’

What else is there but “falling down in the grass, being idle and blessed, strolling through the fields all day.”

As others have argued this is a ‘provocative question. What is a purposeful productive day as you age? Is it not the contradictory wild impressiveness of the idle industry of a grasshopper? Is it not the creativity of the self for the single outcome of energising the moment? Is it not about the surprise of the encounter, the binding of belonging and the silence of reflection?

Everything dies at last Oliver reminds us – alas ‘too soon’ – the creative arts at their best I believe encourage us to live intentional and not accidental lives, to be the directors of our own play rather than actors for another’s text, to mould the clay of our being into the shape of our desire, to pen the language of our yearning and to dance the steps of our choreography.

What do you plan to do with ‘your one wild and precious life’??

That is a question for all ages.

The creative arts perhaps especially for older age more than anything I know pose that question every day and give the whisper of an answer in response.

Keep adventuring for you do not know the change and contentment, the joy and exhilaration, the pathos and the soothing you bring in the work you do. And let us today and all days connect, inspire, and reflect together.

Thank you

A video recording of this talk as it was delivered can be found at



Last Updated on 15th April 2023 by donald.macaskill